China – an Overview.

Richard Hall, April 2007


For me to say this is to shoot myself in the foot but be careful, very careful about taking the stuff you read in the papers for granted. A lot of what you hear about modern China by ex pats, politicians or journalists is just plain wrong. Sunflower an off duty tour guide who picked me up in the Forbidden City to practice her English told me more about China than I learned anywhere else.

Lesson: Listen to the Chinese.

Introductory Thoughts.

“If you haven’t been to China in the past twelve months then you haven’t been to China.”

“I know nothing about China now but I know a whole lot more than before I went”

“I thought China was emerging – but it’s emerged and thriving – when Tony Blair said “smell the tea brewing” in his wake-up call to the EU even he was wrong – China is on much stronger stuff than tea by now”

“It’s amazing how poorly the best and brightest in the West get all this stuff about China and how patronizing they are.”

Lesson: Our preconceptions about coolies, bicycles, and Chinese take-away make us deaf to how quickly China is changing.

The Story.

  1. Don’t ever think of China as a homogeneous country

    China is very big.

    In landmass.

    And population.

    There are 1.3 billion individuals (correction – they’ve just recalculated it as 1.5 billion – that’s equivalent to describing the UK, France and Germany as ‘a rounding error’) We need to emphasise the word “individuals.”

    North, East, South and West are all different and at different stages of development. There is regional imbalance – a West-East faultline – the west much poorer – the lost heartlands of the North East (they call this the “rustbelt”) –Beijing and Shanghai are hugely rich – and there’s increasing urbanisation

    At the same time increased internal migrations chasing work and money may change this to some extent.

    Inverse of USA where there is more of a homogeneity of thinking.

    Lesson: Beware saying or thinking of China as one. It’s like thinking the Greeks on Rhodes are like the Danes.

  2. Don’t think of China as “emergent” but as “re-emergent”

    For 10,000 years China was the world’s biggest economy. The Forbidden City in Beijing (Peking) was the centre of the world. The Chinese ignored the rest of us. The last two hundred years have been a disaster which they will never forget. Unlike the a-historical West China is very focused on its past. We shall not be forgiven the Opium Wars or Boxer Rebellion and they will never again be technologically worsted.

    They are now as they put it “back on form.”

    Lesson: China expects to be back at number one. Everything they do is shaped by their history.

  3. What about the Civil Liberties Issue?

    Pot calling kettle black issue this – US can’t speak on the topic right now and be taken seriously and UK and EU are becoming increasingly repressive – Chinese capital punishment and organ sales a current issue – proportionately to UK population about 15 p.a. are executed  – but…China feels open – is changing – is listening – but starting from a despotic position ( Go to A.A.Milne’s “Two little Bears Lived in a Wood…”This could be the parable to watch). The reality is the party hasn’t made its own mind up yet any more than Google who are having second thoughts about censorship and may yet pull out of China.

    Lesson: This is a very autocratic regime still. There are major tensions at play. The Oympics may open a can of worms for the party. Do not expect the future to be without major bumps.

  4. Ruthless and Cruel?

    Do not apply softer Euro values – Asia= two thirds of world population – life is relatively cheaper – they are busy, very focused and they get things done without a lot of “needless” debate. If a motorway needs building build it and if a village gets in the way flatten it.

    E.G. SoHo Newtown, Beijing (they are a property development company specializing in loft apartments) fire their bottom 10% performers each quarter.

    Lesson: They spend a lot of time deciding about relationships but when they want stuff done they do it.

  5. Contradictions and choice

    I described my first impressions of China as Last Emperor meets Matrix Reloaded.

    There’s a Rolls Royce showroom close to Hutong – poor part of  old “Peking”.

    Old v. young, old v. new, rich v. poor, urban v. rural and so on…There’s vast choice.

    Just look at the menus.And issues about Western “power marketing” e.g. SAB Miller want to rationalize their brand portfolio in China – local management say “no” because the same guy will drink many different beers a day for different reasons”.

    Chinese truth tends to be relative.

    Lesson: Learning to live with complexity, paradox and cornucopia is necessary.

  6. Big, big, big…

    How big?

    • Beijingis the same size as Belgium
    • The disabled of China= 60 million – the same as the total population of the UK.
    • China goes from the Arctic to the Tropics –  it dwarfs the USA
    • By 2050 they expect to have 150 cities with a population of 5million +
  7. Old (new) Ways of Winning

    They learn by rote from the cradle – 5k. characters – Confucius – history – means English (number one syllabus subject ) is easy.

    New Chinese are very smart.

    New Youth.

    Open minded, well travelled, bilingual, inquisitive, hungry for experience and optimistic.

    Just entering a new marketing era – and we in the west know just how exciting that is.

  8. New is Good

    Pity the accountant in China, he doesn’t get a look in – they are a nation of engineers embracing the God “new”. They have better, newer, faster kit.

    They are technologically romping ahead. You go to China for better now not just cheaper.

  9. They are Their Own People

    Look at Chinese pictures in the current Three Emperors Show at the RA – everyone looking around – almost aligned but not quite. Little rebels. Asking themselves – “what’s going on over there?” Great example: Wahaha and Danone – major shareholder sent packing – ‘take the dividends but don’t interfere’.

  10. But They Don’t Necessarily Want to Run Things

    Common Chinese expression “whatever you want Boss.” “Tremble and Obey” is in the genes – 21stcentury version – work out whose boss and do what needs doing – fast.

    And they do want western experience and skills (they aren’t stupid – they kowtow to know how.)

  11. They Lack Focus

    They pursue the latest fad – have conglomerate mentalities – dilettante minds – like earlier USA – like GB 1850 – core value thinking hasn’t got their yet – you need to get the chasm between “shareholder value” thinking and “new world investment” thinking. They are what we call “Renaissance Thinkers”.

  12. Sleepless Success and Momentum

    New York in the 60s, GB in the 60s (smaller version), Australia in the 80s (smaller still), But only one real parallel – GB 1800 – 1850 – from rural to urban to world beater to “Master of the Universe” – you can smell success – welcome to China.

  13. Faster, Better, Cheaper

    The unbeatable trio are what they have to sell. A plastic tool that cost say $500k and took 12 months to produce 20 years ago in the west takes 10 weeks and costs $50k in China today. China is the “wake up call” to all closed western craft practices from publishing to film making to manufacture.

  14. Greater China

    Add Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea (and if you want to be really risky because any trade alliance of value ever going to stick?) then you have a coalition of instant mind changing power.China is the thick end of an enormous wedge – and who will drive the Indonesian boom – China or USA?

  15. A New Map of the World

    Upside down – “south the new north” – with China at the centre.Nothing will be the same again – not frightening unless you stick your head in the sand with your arse in the air.

    We need more than a wake up call – we need rebooting.

    This is the end of the Roman Empire mark two as we know it.

  16. Visit China. See the Future

    250 million middle class by 2010. Olympics will drive growth. Brand China will be enormous. Today is tomorrow. Tomorrow is vastly exciting, dangerous and needs very smart apolitical grown ups to decode.

  17. Metaphors of Modern China

    • The lane-swerving patient way they drive – life is not about “straight lines”
    • Everything ends in a “sale” – so can I now having read this, can I  interest you in my new hyper titanium clothes pegs?
    • This is – they do it all very well in a last minute rush – planning and rehearsing is not their style

If you don’t like New China and embrace the adrenalin rush you are really going to hate the 21st century.

And if you are a member of the Master Race – the USA – sorry guys – huge disappointments en route for you.

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